This book is almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of 17th century English society, but with particular emphasis on the lives of mathematical writers — most of whom were contemporaries of its author, John Aubrey (1626–1697). Consequently, the book presents the earliest known collection of mathematical biographies. In that sense, it is a very early analogue of E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics.
Other than mathematicians, who form the minority of persons mentioned in this book, Aubrey provides colourful, and sometimes racy, insights into the lives of many statesmen, poets, philosophers and scientists. These include Bacon, Shakespeare, Boyle, Descartes, Milton and Hobbes. Such notables, together with a host of lesser but equally fascinating figures, are brought to life by Aubrey’s frankly balanced vignettes.
But why recommend a text that is, for the most part, of subsidiary mathematical relevance? The justification arises not solely from the preceding observations, but for another important reason. That is to say, in the process of accounting for the lives of hundreds of individuals from the period immediately following the English civil war, Aubrey vividly depicts the resulting social and political turbulence of 17th century England. During this period, many individuals met a violent end or were imprisoned for debt or matters of incorrect allegiance. Indeed, Aubrey himself spent much of his life in hiding, and the way he lived was as colourfully dramatic as those of his most vivid subjects. Hence, Aubrey adds to our understanding of the circumstances in which 17th century mathematicians had to survive, and his observations, if not first hand, were empathically constructed from the hearsay and rumour of his times
But the fact that there is only sparse mention of specific mathematical ideas is more than compensated by Aubrey’s revealing observations of men who formulated them. For example, his portrayal of Descartes commences as follows:
He lived severall yeares at Egmont (neer the Hague) from whence he dated severall of his Bookes: he was too wise to encomber himselfe with a Wife, but as he was a man, he had the desires and appetites of a man: he therefore kept a good conditioned handsome woman that he liked, and by whom he had some Children…
And his biography of Thomas Harriot reports that:
Mr Haggar, a Gentleman and good Mathematician was well acquainted with Mr Thomas Hariot, and was wont to say, that he did not like (or valued not) the old storie of the Creation of the World. He could not beleeve the old position; he would say ex nihilio nihil fit [nothing is made from nothing]; but sayd Mr Haggar, a nihilum killed him at last; for in the top of his Nose came a little red spot (exceeding small) which grew bigger and bigger, and at last killed him.
However, such quotations should not detract from the fact that Aubrey provides a much wider idea of the circumstances that moulded the lives of his subjects. For the mathematicians about whom he writes, he provides evidence of their professional and literary connections, but he does so in poetically formulated language that one finds in none of the subsequent histories. Moreover, in this particular edition of Brief Lives, the spelling and punctuation remain as Aubrey produced it, and this in itself adds considerably to its charm.
Finally, it has to be said that, although this unique edition of 2000 is now out of print, there is no other edition that illuminates the lives so many of Aubrey’s mathematical contemporaries. (Most of the editions currently in print omit the section on “our mathematical writers,” for instance.) In this review, very many have gone unmentioned and, although other editions do cover a fair range of mathematicians, none of them do so as fully as this particular one. Hence, this book, which stands alongside Pepys’ Diary as an authentic contribution to literature, is highly recommended reading.
Peter Ruane spent his working years mainly on the training of teachers at the primary and secondary school levels.